The Pirate King of Genoa

ItalyItaly Verdi, Simon BoccanegraChorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera,Rome.  Conductor, Riccardo Muti.  Chorus Master, Roberto Gabbiani.  29.11.2012 (JB)


Simon Boccanegra,  a former pirate, then Doge of Genoa,   -George Petean
Maria Boccanegra, his daughter, under the name of Amelia Grimaldi, -Maria Agresta
Jacopo Fiesco, a nobleman, in exile under the name of Andrea Grimaldi, -Dmitri Beloselsky
Gabriele Adorno, a Genoese gentleman, in love with Maria, -Francesco Meli
Paolo Albani, a leader of the People, -Quinn Kelsey
Pietro, his friend and supporter, -Riccardo Zanellato


Director of this new production: Adrian Noble
Sets: Dante Ferretti
Costumes: Maurizio Millenotti
Choreography: Sue Lefton
Lighting:  Alan Burett

Simon Boccanegra –  Photo Courtesy Rome Opera

You might have thought that W.S. Gilbert was the inventor of the Pirate King (The Pirates of Penzance).  Well how about a Pirate King who gets rid of all the other nuisances along an entire coast and then by popular vote is elected Doge of the Kingdom, and just for good measure, has found time to father a daughter with an aristocrat, who dies, whereon, the poor lost, orphaned daughter is at her wits’ end until unexpectedly reunited to her father?  All these elements of plot were the invention of Aristophanes, the Father of Theatrical Comedy in ancient Greece.  Gilbert was a classicist and obtained more than one plot from the Greek master, and so was Wilde, who brilliantly uses the same absurd plot in The Importance of Being Earnest.  Gilbert uses it again in The Gondoliers. 

When this irresistible plot arrived on Giuseppe Verdi’s desk it was in the form of Antonio Garcia Gutiérrez’s play, Simon Bocanegra, set in fourteenth century Genoa, where the protagonist had indeed been Doge, following his stint as a Pirate King, and thus lending historical credence to Aristophanes’ original joke.  (You will recall that Verdi had had a resounding success by using another melodramatic play of Gutiérrez, which roughly has elements of the same plot: Il Trovatore.)  Furthermore,Genoa was fast becoming Verdi’s favourite place to pass the winter months: that part of the Ligurian coast is well protected against the worst of the winter weather –a matter which the wealthy English discovered at  about the same time,  as they began constructing luxury houses there.

From this promising start, Simon Boccanegra followed a somewhat chequered path.  The March 1857 opening in Venice (Teatro La Fenice) was a flop.  In part this was owing to problems with the censor whom Francesco Maria Piave (Verdi’s first choice of librettist) was unable to satisfy in time; but Piave also tried hard to convince Verdi that he ought to be writing more arias and fewer exchanges of  (political) views, which work well in a prose play but don’t in an opera.  I am on Piave’s side here but Verdi insisted the librettist should stick as closely as possible to the dialogue exchanges of Gutiérrez’s play.  Piave stalled; Verdi called in Giuseppe Montanelli to finish and make alterations in the libretto.  But the resulting flop inVenice,  it seems to me,  was entirely predictable.

But Simon Boccanegra  was close to Verdi’s heart: a man of the People (in the quaint old Russian sense) and who had been elected by them as Doge: a plebeian, who  held no revenge for his enemies and who was on a personal mission to find a long-lost daughter.  Soon he was working with Arrigo Boito on Otello,  and he persuaded that librettist to do a drastic rewrite of Simon Boccanegra.  Verdi rewrote the score, almost note for note.  In this version it came into the world triumphantly at La Scala in March 1881.  And this is the versionRome presented.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with Simon Boccanegra.   I sense too keenly Verdi’s own discomfort with it: he was striving for something which is pretty well nigh impossible, namely to find musical expression for a political, moral philosophy.  Moreover, it would be another century before Isaiah Berlin clearly articulated this philosophy.  Sir Isaiah would recoil in horror at my crude summary of his life’s work, but begging his pardon, here goes: Berlin believed that the only kind of liberty that was of any real value to society was that which embraced pluralism in which differing concepts of liberty could live not just contentedly, but joyously together: I can rejoice in your concept of liberty even though I have no wish to participate in it and I hope you may be reciprocally joyful of my (possibly strange) concept(s).

Now imagine trying to communicate that without Berlin’s aid and in musical terms!  No wonder Verdi felt frustrated.  Listening to Boccanegra, we feel the struggle, in the way we feel the struggle in the late Beethoven: both composers are striving for something they don’t completely understand.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that the struggle is the genius.  In fifty years of acquaintance with the opera with some great conductors, I have never been able to connect with this struggle.  Until now.  Riccardo Muti positively burns the notes out of the singers and players.  This is performance with a rare, rich, varied passion which passes all expectations of subtlety and nuance.  No wonder this has remained Verdi’s preferred conductors’ opera.  And in Muti, Verdi finds his idealist.  And idealism is what the opera is all about.

Riccardo Muti, who is an excellent pianist, famously coaches his singers with himself as his répétiteur, coxing sounds from the voices which he will illustrate on the piano.  He is intricately concerned with what concerned Verdi, and most particularly in Boccanegra: that the singers are making sounds which are totally in character of the roles they play.  His tutelage was a triumph.  And without exception.

The Romanian baritone, George Petean, was an inspired piece of casting as Simon Boccanegra.  His voice is warm, perfectly focused and with exactly the right vibrato in the right places and an enunciation of the Italian language which sounds as though he means it.  His movements are unfussy yet meaningful.  A triumph.

Maria Agresta as the troubled daughter was equal to him.  Her voice is steady and reassuring, yet she conveys Maria’s uncertainties (and there are many) with such conviction that we are persuaded that this is not an actress but the real-life Maria Boccanegra.  Verdi is kind enough to give her a grand scena ed aria  when he introduces her to us.  This was delivered with such style that its immense demands disappeared as her performance progressed.  The recognition scene of father and daughter was deeply moving from both artists.

Jacopo Fiesco, the nobleman, who creates much of the opera’s melodrama, is required to be a primo basso profondo.  Dmitri Beloselsky is just that.  His voice provides the right contrast with Petean’s lighter baritone in their frequent duet exchanges.  Herewith Verdi’s own requirements for Fiesco: You want a deep voice, audible in the bass register right down to F with something in it that is inexorable, prophetic, sepulchral.  Beloselsky has all this.  From his opening aria he shows us that we are dealing with a flesh and blood, troubled human being and not an operatic character.

Gabriele Adorno is the traditional Verdi heroic tenor and Francesco Meli delivers the goods on that score.  His voice is ringing and tinged with just the right amount of pain for this not to have become a mannerism but to keep him in character.

Both Quinn Kelsey and Riccardo Zanellato as Paolo and Pietro,  the leaders of the People, were equally convincing.  A letter from Verdi warns La Fenice not to be sparing in spending money on these two essential comprimario roles.  We meet them as conspirators in the dark prologue, but as conspirators who want to catapult Simon into power.  But once that has met their own needs they conspire against him.  Well Rome spared no money in this casting either.  Both singers were perfectly in character throughout.

Adrian Noble’s staging was unfussy, noble and authoritative.  It gained in the opera’s grander moments (especially the Council Chamber of the Doge’s Palace –Act one, scene two: see photo) but lost something in the more intimate scenes.  (The opera alternates between grandeur and intimacy almost as much as Aida.)  Sue Lefton’s choreographed movements were always musical, especially in the final scene.  Dante Ferretti’s sets and Maurizio Millenotti’s costumes harmonised admirably with Noble’s conventional, but always musical and effective production.

Jack Buckley